What Counts as Student Agency?

In some sense, all action demonstrates agency. After all, a student who makes the decision to drop out of school is by some definitions exercising agency to take that action. However, when we talk about student agency, we want to focus on students taking action that supports their growth and efficacy. Therefore, in our practice, we consider student agency to have the following two components:

  1. Volition – actions taken by students must be of their own volition in order to be agentic. That is, it must happen in the pursuit of their own goals rather than in response to rewards and punishments, peer or parental pressure, or even merely being in agreement that the goal is a good one – the goal has to be internalized as their own.
  2. Positive Action – actions need to improve or extend a student’s learning, learning environment, or personal growth in order to count as student agency.

To foster student agency, it is necessary to foster both high-quality student motivation for learning in order to see volition, and metacognitive skills in order for the student to have the tools for positive action. This piece is focused on the complicated volitional aspect.

Self-Determination Theory draws a distinction between motivation that is driven by internal goals and motivation that is driven by external goals. On the very left of the spectrum is a complete lack of motivation, followed by the low-quality motivation associated with rewards and punishments. On the very right of the spectrum is intrinsic motivation where people engage with an activity purely because of the interest and satisfaction that it brings, preceded by internal motivation which is characterized by people taking action in support of their own goals. The further motivation moves to the right, the higher student performance is likely to be. If a student’s motivation can be moved all the way to intrinsic motivation, that student is far more likely to sustain motivation for that activity and to find enjoyment and satisfaction in school.

Moving motivation to the right is a matter of supporting students’ sense of autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Autonomy means that students feel they are acting out of their own choice. They do not feel pressured. Competence means that students feel that they have the ability to complete the task. Relatedness means that students feel a sense of belonging to the group and strong relationship to the teacher.  If a teacher effectively supports these three elements, they are creating an environment where student motivation is likely to move to the right – perhaps all the way to intrinsic motivation.

One complexity arises when thinking about internal motivation. Whether there is agency here depends not only on the motivation being internal but on what the internal goal is. Consider the difference between these two goals:

  1. I do my homework so I can get good grades and get into college
  2. I do my homework so I can learn because I need to know this material to be successful in a career in science.

One goal is focused on grades. One goal is focused on learning. Does this matter? After all, both motivations lead students to study, to work hard, to pay attention in class. Both motivations lead students to do their best to get into college. Both sets of motivations lead to what are traditionally considered “good students.”

However, students who are motivated to learn are more likely to focus on understanding, are more likely to learn deeply, are more likely to go above and beyond in an assignment, and are more likely to investigate when they have a question. Students who are motivated to get good grades are more likely to game the system, do the minimal amount of work necessary, memorize formulas rather than understand where they came from, read book summaries rather than books, and cheat.

To foster student agency (by our narrow definition) it is necessary to both create an environment that supports moving motivation to the right and also to support students internalizing learning as a goal. This can happen in two different ways: make learning interesting or make learning important. When making learning interesting, it is possible to activate intrinsic motivation which is the ultimate goal when it is possible. But no matter what a teacher does, there will always be some students for whom a particular topic just isn’t interesting. In that case, the key is to help students understand why the learning is important. This happens from a combination of presenting a clear logical argument as well as having a strong personal relationship – relatedness is key.

Of course, this places a burden on our whole education system to ensure that the work students are asked to do actually is important and meaningful. If the best rationale for doing sheets of math problems is that it will help you get into college, then is student agency really necessary, or is gaming the system good enough? This is one of the questions at the heart of education reform – how will we respond?

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